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Let’s face it: Getting to Columbia, Md. can be a pain in the ass. There’s no direct train—-MARC’s station in Dorsey is as close as commuter rail will get you, and Metrobus and other public transit options would require an interminable number of hours and route transfers. And we all know how pleasant driving to the exurbs can be.
But let’s say you want to see Fleet Foxes at Merriweather Post Pavilion on Sept. 23. Most likely, you and five of your boho lumberjack friends will spend a good portion of the afternoon crammed into a compact sedan designed for four as you crawl your way up Interstate 95. Sure, the conversation might be stimulating, but really, how long can you hold your breath while debating flannel shirt patterns and contemplating obscure woodwind instruments?
Fortunately, I.M.P. has you covered in its new partnership with Numaan Akram, a New York-based tour bus operator who is bringing his “Rock & Bus” service to Merriweather starting with Incubus‘ show on Sept. 11. What, exactly, is the Rock & Bus? For a price, you can save the hassle of driving to Columbia and instead nab a seat on a “luxury party shuttle.”
Sounds swanky. But really, sometimes a bus is just a bus, even if it has bathrooms and TV screens.
Akram doesn’t own any buses outright. Instead, he is a charter coach middleman. His career as a bus operator launched last year when he started selling seats on buses to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert‘s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in October. A former Internet business consultant, Akram figured Daily Show fanatics from across the country were yearning to get to Washington but stymied by the difficulty of booking intercity bus transit. The Rally Bus, as Akram called it, was a crowdsourced tour. After taking enough reservations, he contacted charter bus operators and scheduled shuttles to the Stewart-Colbert event. In all, he says, he booked 96 buses each carrying 55 passengers.
Since then, Akram has attempted to take his business model to sporting events, conventions, and concerts. The service has a different name depending on the destination. For NASCAR events, for instance, Akram offers the Nasbus, for football there’s the Bowl Bus (check out the generic, Microsoft Paint-vintage “Professional Football League” logo), and so on. The appeal for every bus, he says, is that it offers the individual a service which is usually only available to large groups.
“We’re bringing the benefits of group travel to an individual level,” he says.
But it’s kind of expensive. For trips to Merriweather, Rock & Bus is asking $40 round-trip per person on a coach leaving from Union Station. That’s the same price as a lawn ticket for Incubus or a covered seat for Fleet Foxes or Wilco in late September. Columbia isn’t very accessible without a car, but is getting past the inconvenience worth essentially doubling the cost of going to a concert?
That’s the bet I.M.P. is taking with Akram, says the booking company’s spokesperson Audrey Schaefer. A charter bus service will allow I.M.P. to tap into “music fans that want to buy tickets to a show but don’t because they don’t know how to get there,” she says. Both Akram and I.M.P. are banking on people willing to double-down on their concert expenditures to avoid driving, waiting in traffic, and parking, opting instead to enjoy the shared experience of a bus trip.
“Maybe everyone talks about what their favorite songs are,” Schaefer suggests.
But first, Akram needs to sell enough seats. The websites for his 16 brands list hundreds of events, but he’ll only book a bus if he can recruit at least 30 passengers, though for Merriweather the threshold is 15 riders. Anything less, and he’ll offer refunds. Sometimes his venture is quite successful: Last weekend, he chartered seven coaches to the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee and three to a Kenny Chesney concert in Foxboro, Mass. But this week he’s not sending anything out. And though Akram says the buzz for his company is growing, the margins are still very thin and he’s spending most everything he makes on marketing.
In exchange for getting more people to Merriweather, Akram is counting on I.M.P. to give him a boost by advertising his services on its website. Rock & Bus caught I.M.P.’s attention after selling out five buses between here and New York to the Virgin Mobile Freefest on Sept. 10. (Though for that show, the shuttle is called the Muzik Bus.)
Rock & Bus and I.M.P. are optimistic about this partnership despite the cost factor. Both companies pointed to the “green” benefits of taking a bus—-not that these buses are low-emissions vehicles. But if the convenience isn’t enticing enough, there’s always an environmental guilt trip.
Clarification: The minimum number of riders for the Rock & Bus to Merriweather Post Pavilion is 15, not the company’s usual threshold of 30.